Herat Northwestern Afghanistan

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'Khorasan is the oyster shell of the world, and Herat Is Its pearl', says an old proverb, referring to this Afghan city's pre-eminence in a region that covered much of medieval Iran and Turkmenistan. It's a saying that still holds much truth, for Herat still shines as the cultural centre of Afghanistan, a seat of poetry, learning and architecture. Invaders from Genghis Khan to the Russians have all taken turns at flattening it, but Herat still manages to hold its head high, offer its visitors tea and suggest they sample its attractions. And there's much to take in, from the Citadel that towers over the Old City to its glorious Friday Mosque and many shrines. Those coming from Kabul will be equally amazed by the efficiency of its infrastructure, not least the electricity supply.

From this ancient Silk Road oasis, the road crosses the Safed Koh mountains - the last outpost of the Hindu Kush - to reach the northwest. Here the land flattens out to form part of the Central Asian steppe, a semidesert that's home to Kuchi nomads and Turkmen and Uzbek farmers. This is the main centre for the greatest of the country's folk arts, the Afghan carpet, and the bright swatches of knotted wool contrast sharply with the dusty landscape that produces them.

HIGHLIGHTS

■ Gaze in awe at the dazzling mosaic tiling

of the Friday Mosque (p136) in Herat

♦ Andkhoi

■ Contemplate poetry with the Sufis at

Gazar Gah (p138), one of Afghanistan's

holiest sites

■ Climb the battlements of Herat's Citadel

(p137) for sweeping views across the city

.Gazar Gah

■ Haggle for carpets at the bazaar in And-

ir Herat

khoi (p144), the northwest's most tradi

tional market town

RISK ASSESSMENT

Herat has traditionally been an area of peace and prosperity, but since the removal of Ismail Khan it has exhibited regular signs of instability, including a number of bombs and riots. Although the city was calm at the time of going to press, check the situation before travelling. Iranian penetration of the city may also cause problems in the event of Western military activity towards Iran.

The route northwest from Herat to Maim-ana should be avoided due to chronic lawlessness and anti-government armed groups in Badghis province, which is particularly remote. Attacks against police in the Bala Murghab district are common.

CLIMATE

Western Afghanistan feels a world away from the high peaks that otherwise dominate much of the country. Crossed by the low Safed Koh mountains, the land is flat and open, stretching out to the Iranian Plateau and Central Asian steppe. The climate is accordingly hot and dry, dominated around Herat by the Bad-e Sad o Bist (Wind of 120 Days) that blows from the end of spring to the start of autumn, carrying a desiccating dust. Summer temperatures can reach 38°C, dropping to just below freezing from December to February.

GETTING THERE & AWAY

Transport connections around the northwest and to the rest of Afghanistan can be patchy. From Herat, the highway to Kabul runs through the restive south via Kandahar, making travel extremely dangerous for foreigners. Alternative road routes are challenging for different reasons: either the central route through the Hindu Kush to Bamiyan, or the northwest route to Mai-mana, Andkhoi and Shiberghan along probably the worst road in the country. Both choices are rough and uncomfortable rides, and highly susceptible to the changing seasons. Andkhoi and Shiberghan are both on the tarmac highway to Mazar-e Sharif.

Daily flights link Herat and Kabul, with regular flights between Herat and Mazar-e Sharif, as well as a less reliable service linking Maimana and Shiberghan to the capital.

Cross-border travel is relatively straightforward, with direct bus links connecting Herat to Mashhad in Iran. Onward travel to Turkmenistan is possible, although the paperwork and permits can take some arranging.

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